The final Champions League position, like it or not, is hugely important this season. In fact it cannot be underestimated just how large the ramifications may be. Consider that Liverpool are already hanging on by the skin of their teeth financially, and would surely have to sell Torres, and possibly Gerrard, if they finished fifth or lower (unless that mythical takeover happens). Even without speculating on who else might leave both of those players are irreplaceable, and they still couldn't afford to sack Benitez if he chose to stay on.
Liverpool are a big enough club with a committed enough fan-base for financial meltdown a la Leeds to be unthinkable, but then an immediate recovery to the heights of last season is equally unthinkable. Liverpool need to finish fourth more than any of the other three contenders. Whilst that might work in their favour, and they have players with experience of high pressure situations, it is no guarantee for results on the pitch. And the team have been consistently abysmal this season.
Manchester City not only crave Champions League football like everybody else, but now feel like they belong in the competition. Hundreds of millions of pounds and arsehole chief executives tend to lead to such delusions. In fact imagining the lengths to which Gary Cook's smugness could stretch if City actually achieved anything is surely enough to convince anyone that they cannot, for the good of the game. Yet the good of the game is an abstract and much abused value - the hard currency of results and league position cannot be argued with.
If City do finish fourth then the combination of Champions League football and perfectly understandable £££ related professional career decisions could well see them replace Liverpool on all of Sky and ESPN's sickeningly populist advertisements. Even if its only a matter of time before all of this happens anyway, I'd just like to stave it off as long as possible.
Spurs are the team in possession at the moment, and it must also be said the team in form. There is always the danger that a possible cup semi-final appearance may provide a distraction and tire the squad. However the rather chastening experience of clicking 'My Club' then 'Spurs' on the BBC site has revealed they face Portsmouth at home after Fulham next week, the ideal game really. The Spurs squad is durable and has good variation in key positions - I'm sure they can deal with the extra games. A lot has been said about their run in but no game is easy at this stage of the season against teams from either end of the table - its a one-game-at-a-time battle from here on in.
If they do finish fourth Spurs, who already punch above their weight in the transfer market, could really improve their squad and move on to the next level (though I'm sure any such talk is tempered by memories of the Juande Ramos era and all its promises). If they do not then we could reasonably expect to see any of Defoe, Huddlestone, Pavluychenko, Modric, Lennon and Gomes turning out in sky blue/royal blue/some version of red shirts next season. That would mean another season of rebuilding at Spurs, and realistically little chance of challenging for 'honours' (as if fourth should really be something to celebrate) next season.
If Spurs represent a lot of neutral fans best chance of a change at the top, then Aston Villa are probably the side that most fans hope make it (excluding Birmingham, West Brom, and undecided Craig Gardner-esque supporters). Martin O'Neill remains as popular as ever and a largely British, young squad has attracted many plaudits. As a Villa fan I would love us to finish fourth but realistically I just don't see it happening. Anyone who has consistently watched us this season would be as unconvinced, especially when we appear to be flagging in crucial positions and O'Neill, infuriatingly, refuses to trust squad players to start games, or even come off the bench for any meaningful period of time.
In fact I don't actually see us as being realistic contenders for fourth spot. Games in hand mean nothing until they're won, and the last few games have really provided as many questions as answers about our team. If the unthinkable were to happen it would be wonderful for the club, the area and, I think, the league in general. However as it stands we are definite outsiders, a role that suits us as a club but also recognises the deficiencies in our squad.
The end of the season will doubtless see twists, shocks, and general mayhem - the first two thirds of the season deserve to serve such an end. And with the title race seemingly between three sides who would all deserve to be Champions, and the relegation battle being fought out by numerous teams who are definitely bad enough to go down, this season might just be one to savour.